Dark history of Canada's First Nations pass system uncovered in documentary

The pass system is a troubling piece of Canadian policy put in place in 1885 to control the movements of First Nation people, and enforced until the 1940s.

Little known policy restricted people living on reserves, enforced for nearly 60 years

A two week pass for Edward Yahyahkeekoot from the Saskatchewan Archives Board. This is one of the few remaining passes found in a Canadian archive, and is proof of the pass system, implemented in 1885. The policy controlled the movement of First Nation people off reserves. (Tamarack Productions)

Very little is known about the pass system. It was a troubling piece of Canadian policy, put in place in 1885 to control the movements of First Nation people, and enforced until the 1940s.

It required all First Nation people living on reserve to get written permission from an Indian agent when they needed to leave their community If caught without a pass, they were either incarcerated or returned to the reserve.

Introduced on the cusp of the North West Rebellion, led by Louis Riel, the policy was supposed to be temporary, used to prevent another uprising. In fact, the policy remained in effect for nearly 60 years.

"The pass system was developed as an emergency measure to keep First Nations on the reserve at a time when, of course, the Métis insurrection had broken out," said University of Saskatchewan history professor Jim Miller.

Miller is featured in a new documentary, The Pass System, directed by Alex Williams.

Williams was researching the mistreatment of First Nation people when he stumbled upon information about the policy, with roots in his home province of Saskatchewan.

He told CBC he was shocked to find out that the policy stood in direct conflict with the promises made under the treaties, and decided to take it upon himself to piece together as much information as he could.

Memories of freedom denied

Leona Blondeau remembers seeing firsthand how the pass system restricted how often her family left her home reserve, George Gordon First Nation, near Punnichy, Sask.

Leona Blondeau from George Gordon First Nations Reserve near Punnichy, Sask. experienced the pass system firsthand when she was a child. Still from The Pass System. (Tamarack Productions)
"I remember being very angry about things that went on. I felt deprived of freedom," said Blondeau, who is also featured in Williams' film.

"Who would ever think that you couldn't ever leave the reserve."

Blondeau recalls returning home from residential school for the summer, and how her mom was only able to take her into town once the entire summer.

"That was to get a few groceries and have ice cream, for a treat, then we would come home, that was it."   

No basis in law

From the onset, the policy was criticized for having no basis in law — resulting in its legality being called into question.

After the Métis North West Rebellion of 1885, assistant commission of Indian Affairs Hayter Reed pens the Memorandum on the Future Management of Indians, which outlines the pass system. (Tamarack Productions)
In 1893 the North-West Mounted Police protested the pass system, with Commissioner Lawrence William Herchmer ordering members of the force to stop returning First Nation people without passes to reserves. 

Indian Affairs commissioner Hayter Reed overruled the police, but in a letter that circulated to the Indian Agents, recognized that the policy was not grounded in law.

"I beg to inform you that there has never been any legal authority for compelling Indians who leave their Reserves to return to them, but it has always been felt that it would be a great mistake for this matter to stand too strictly on the letter of the law," wrote Reed in a letter on June 15, 1893.

Why not resist?

While there are examples of people standing up against the pass system, for the most part it remained in operation without question, in large part due to the power Indian agents had in communities.

"You had these Indian agents who were judges, they controlled your agricultural sales, you want to keep them in good graces," said Williams.

In the film Williams also explores the permit system, which was introduced to control that sales of goods off of reserves. With many sales being made off reserve, the pass and permit systems were often intertwined.

For people living on reserve that meant their livelihood relied on full cooperation with the Indian agent.   

Missing records

One of the biggest hurdles Williams faced when making the documentary was finding proof that the pass system actually happened.

According to Williams, in the 1950s there was an attempt to destroy all records of the pass system, held at the Battleford, Sask. Indian Affairs office. The few remaining documents were suppose to be sent to the dump, but were saved by brothers Don and Doug Light.

"It's plausible that this sort of thing was widespread, so when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission talks about missing documents, that's in part what they're talking about — where are these records?"

The cover of an Indian agent's passbook, which contained the passes First Nation people needed to leave the reserve. A book is in the Saskatchewan Archives Board. (Tamarack Productions)
For Williams, examples like the pass system show how important it is to value oral histories.

"Which in this case is extremely crucial — not just to understand the emotional impact of what happened, but purely as evidence because these documents have been destroyed, we don't have a clear record."

And because little is being done to uncover these policies, and prove their existence, their damage to people and communities has yet to be uncovered.

"To me the economic impacts are incalculable … the impact to people's dignity is of course the most important thing" said Williams.

For Leona Blondeau, she is not looking for an apology, but she does want more people to learn about the pass system.

"All I want people to know is to be aware that these things happened… it happened to us," said Blondeau.

The Pass System will screen at TIFF Cinemateque, Friday February 19, 2016 at 8:45 p.m. Director Alex Williams will be in attendance. 

Repeat screening Sunday February 21, 2016 at 3:00 p.m. at TIFF Cinemateque. Panel discussion with Mi'kmaq lawyer Pamela Palmater, former head of research for the TRC Commission John S. Milloy, and  director Alex Williams.